COLUMBIA, S.C. — A longtime University of South Carolina board of trustees member says he has gotten rid of a painting on display at his house by Adolf Hitler, the World War II Nazi leader who sent 6 million Jews and millions of others to be killed in death camps.
Eddie Floyd, a retired heart surgeon, top state Republican fundraiser and philanthropist, said he got rid of the Hitler painting after a reporter from The State newspaper told him he was doing a story about the state’s Jewish community being troubled by it.
The reporter’s request made him realize that what was a collector’s item to him could cause great distress to others, he said.
“I’m truly sorry if I upset anybody,” said Floyd, 82, who has been a University of South Carolina board member for 35 years. “It really upset me; I’ve lost sleep over it.”
An art collector whose home in Florence, east of Columbia, is filled with paintings and sculptures, Floyd said he only bought the painting to complement two other paintings he had by World War II leaders — British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. Gen. (later President) Dwight Eisenhower.
For months, rumors that Floyd had a Hitler painting — an untitled watercolor of a Catholic abbey with trees in the foreground, signed by A. Hitler — had sparked behind-the-scenes concern in the state’s Jewish and African-American communities.
Specifically, people were wondering how a prominent state public official could display, even privately in his home, a painting by one of history’s greatest mass murderers. Hitler approved what Nazis called “the Final Solution” — the attempted extermination of people of Jewish descent in Europe, also known as the Holocaust.
Today, Hitler’s efforts are memorialized by the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day and the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as a reminder to never again allow genocide.
Tales about Floyd possessing a Hitler painting took on new life last year after it was exhibited at the Florence County Museum.
A press release about the exhibit, which highlighted art-related themes from the Civil War, World War I and World War II, noted that the Hitler, Eisenhower and Churchill paintings were “from a local private collection.” The exhibit did not highlight the Hitler painting, and a plaque beside it noted Hitler committed “crimes against humanity.”
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And, just this January, Hitler’s toxic racial ideas received national publicity when evidence introduced during South Carolina mass murderer Dylann Roof’s trial showed that Roof, a white supremacist, had been motivated to kill African-Americans by Hitler’s writings on racial purity.
“I believe one day that Adolf Hitler will be inducted as a saint,” Roof wrote in a jailhouse diary after his arrest for the 2015 hate crime killings of nine African-Americans during a Bible study at a historic Charleston church. In January, a jury sentenced Roof to death.
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Former Democratic state Sen. Joel Lourie, a prominent member of the state’s Jewish community, was one who had heard the rumors and wondered “how someone of Floyd’s education and prominence could have a Hitler painting in his home.”
“Something that Hitler created is a sign of evil — it’s not a conversation piece,” Lourie said, adding he is glad Floyd has gotten rid of it.
Bakari Sellers, a former state lawmaker, University of South Carolina Law School graduate and CNN commentator, said rumors about Floyd’s having a painting by Hitler had been swirling for months. Now that the matter is in the open, Sellers said, he hopes it will spark public conversations about racial healing.
“This has probably been the worst kept secret in South Carolina politics,” Sellers said. “Dr. Floyd didn’t even understand anything was wrong. There’s no doubt Dr. Floyd is a great man for his many contributions to South Carolina, but even great men have blind spots.”
Along with his wife of more than 50 years, Kay, Floyd over the years has collected hundreds of paintings and sculptures, mostly from places they’ve visited in their travels, largely Europe, Russia and the Caribbean. Many — landscapes, portraits and still lifes — hang in their Mediterranean-style house in a quiet Florence neighborhood.
“The places we go, instead of buying souvenirs, we will look for art,” Floyd said. “That’s what we have done over the years.”
After he acquired the Churchill piece some 25 years ago, and later the one by Eisenhower, Floyd said he bought the Hitler painting about five years ago from an auction house in England. In all, including commissions and shipping, the painting cost about $10,000, Floyd said. The Churchill painting features a scene from Marrakesh; the Eisenhower, a snow scene.
Over the years, Hitler’s paintings have sold between several thousand dollars and several hundred thousand dollars each. As a young art student in Vienna before World War I, Hitler made hundreds of paintings — no one knows exactly how many — mostly of street scenes and landscapes, to sell. Between 300 and 600 are believed to have survived.
Both Eisenhower (1890-1969) and Churchill (1874-1965) were amateur painters. Churchill painted most of his life; Eisenhower took up painting as a hobby on the advice of his doctors in the 1950s.
Floyd is a prominent figure in the Florence area and South Carolina cultural and political life. He has helped raise millions for Republican state and national presidential candidates over the years. But he also can support Democrats, such as Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.
In the Florence area, Floyd has a reputation as a major benefactor. “I can’t think of anyone who has done more for our region than Eddie Floyd,” said Fred Carter, president of Francis Marion University for 18 years.
In his position as chairman of a wealthy local foundation, Floyd has spearheaded “tens of millions” of that charity’s money to Francis Marion as well as to help build local projects such as a new library, the museum where the painting hangs, a county performing arts center and a university health science center that educates nurses and other health care professionals, Carter said.
“Take any major project in this community that has benefited people and you’ll find that Eddie Floyd has helped put it together,” Carter said.
Lilly Filler, a retired Columbia physician whose parents survived Hitler’s death camps, was shocked that a painting by Hitler would ever be put alongside paintings by Allied leaders Eisenhower and Churchill.
“That legitimizes what can never be legitimized,” she said. “Hitler was the leader of a diabolic, destructive group of people. Eisenhower and Churchill fought against Hitler to keep him from taking over the world and annihilating a whole group of people. It’s a false equivalency, a false narrative.
“Where do you put a painting by Hitler?” asked Filler. “Maybe you put it in a museum that talks about the Holocaust. Hitler is not known for his artwork — I can tell you that!”
Filler is on the board of the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust. She is also part of a Columbia Holocaust group that is sponsoring a Holocaust exhibit currently at the McKissick Museum on the University of South Carolina’s main campus.
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Seldon Smith, a now-retired Columbia College history professor who taught the Holocaust for 25 years, said in an interview that most of his students had heard of Hitler, but were not familiar with the Holocaust.
Young people generally know Hitler was bad, but they “would have a hard time telling you what-all he was up to,” Smith said. Any exhibit involving Hitler “cries out for explanation” that he tried to exterminate a portion of humanity, Smith said.
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Floyd said he was particularly shaken to learn some in the state’s Jewish community were troubled by the Hitler painting. Some of the people who helped him most in his medical career were Jewish, including the late Dr. Isadore Cohn, a legendary mentor at Louisiana State University Medical School, where Floyd got his start, he said.
Floyd would not say what he has done with the Hitler painting, only that it is out of his and his family’s hands. If he ever receives any money for it, he will donate the proceeds to worthy causes, including Jewish causes, he said.
Asked if he would ever think of buying another Hitler painting, Floyd shook his head. “Hell, no! I wouldn’t touch one with a 10-foot pole!”